After I started getting published and my parents realized my writing wasn’t just a passing phase, my dad told my sister, “When Colette finally writes about me, ask her to be kind.”
He’s never said it to me, though. We rarely talk about my writing. He’s started reading my blog and even subscribes (with some guidance about how to sign up). And he’s proud of me. I know he is. But I also know I make him nervous, especially now that I’m writing personal essays as well as fiction.
It’s inevitable for anyone related to a writer to worry: Will I show up in her work? If I do, will she be fair? Will I like the self I see portrayed?[bctt tweet=”Worries of writers’ relatives: Will I show up in her work? Will I like the self I see portrayed?”]
But should the writer worry too, about the reaction of her subjects?
When I wrote only fiction, I wasn’t concerned about this issue. I didn’t care whether others saw themselves in my writing. After all, my work was fiction. I drew elements from life, even full story lines, but I fictionalized everything. If something from real events didn’t fit my purposes, I changed it.
For instance, my story “Lamb” was inspired by a cross-country trek (involving Easter eggs and a smuggled, frozen carcass) taken by my mother’s mother, Grandma T, after my sister and I were born. But that’s where the similarities between real life and the story end. Even Rose, the grandmother portrayed in “Lamb,” isn’t based on Grandma T, an unhappy, angry woman with whom I had a tense relationship.
Instead, Rose was inspired by my father’s mother, whom I revered even though she, too, was difficult, prone to lying and manipulating to get what she wanted. But she was also brilliant and ambitious, and she loved me with a fierce protectiveness. I understood what drove her, what she yearned for and feared, and so I could portray someone like her, someone flawed and fiery and determined, someone who could still love and be lovable.
Even so, my mother never showed “Lamb” to her own mother because she knew Grandma T would believe Rose was her simply because the story’s central event resembled something she did.
At the time, I thought my mother was being silly. Clearly, my grandmother didn’t know me if she would think I would write so close to life. I wanted nothing to do with nonfiction, especially personal nonfiction. I was too private. Whenever I tried to write about myself, I erred on the side of self-effacing, apologetic prose that bored the crap out of me. Fiction was easier to write than fact. In fiction, I could take what I knew and screw with it. I could change outcomes, change people, make them what I needed them to be.
Despite my misgivings about nonfiction, I found myself writing personal essays after my mother died. I also started this blog, which was meant to deal solely with craft. But the more I wrote for my blog, the more freedom I discovered in writing posts that touched on elements of my life. Soon, the personal elements overtook the craft ones until most of my posts were personal essays masquerading as blog entries.
I wondered about my change of heart. Why was I suddenly willing to write about myself?
An answer occurred to me recently while listening to “About That Farm Upstate,” from a This American Life episode. “About That Farm Upstate” discusses The Sharing Place, a grief support center for children in Salt Lake City. One goal of The Sharing Place is to help children articulate their grief by explaining to them how their relatives died using clear, age-appropriate language. Says This American Life contributor Jonathan Goldstein, “Once a child knows how their loved one died, they’re encouraged to say it out loud. There’s a kind of sorcery to it, naming the dragon so you can defeat it.”
Naming the dragon. That was it.
Often, we writers, no matter what kind of writing we do, are naming our own dragons so they take on heft and weight. That way, we can demystify them, understand them, defeat them.
That’s what I’ve been doing with my writing all along, even with fiction. Naming the dragons of my youth, of my past, my present, my future.[bctt tweet=”In fiction and nonfiction, I am naming the dragons of my youth, of my past, my present, my future.”]
Once my mother died, I felt more free to write nonfiction and openly name the dragons that arose from our relationship, which was complex and fraught with difficulties, but layered with love and a deep, abiding commitment.
Still, when I write about things that happened between us, I also wind up writing about other people involved in those events, people who are still alive. They are not characters of my own creation, to be molded and manipulated at will, but rather are loved ones, family members, friends.
What do I owe them?
This issue, of how to name your dragons when they involve real people whose lives you will expose in the naming, isn’t a new one. Book critic and author David Ulin recently addressed it in his essay, “What Do Writers Owe Their Subjects?” Though he cautions writers never to work “from a position of revenge,” he urges them to explore difficult topics involving real people. Says Ulin:
Writing…belongs first to the writer, and then to the reader, to the world. The subject is a catalyst, a character, but our responsibility is, has to be, to the work.
The act of writing about another person occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.
Thus, even though in theory we writers may owe our allegiance to our work, in practice we should be heedful of the real world ramifications of what we write. Unless we’re fine with friends and family shunning us, or even suing us, for scathing, potentially actionable portrayals, we need to think about how to protect our relationships with our loved ones, as well as how to protect ourselves once our work is published.
In “Memoir Writing and Ethics,” Linda Joy Meyers explores how to take an ethical approach to writing personal nonfiction. The post lists numerous pragmatic steps writers can take, including getting permission to use real names, clarifying facts versus opinion, avoiding portrayals that are potentially slanderous or defamatory, and considering how certain grudges or emotionally sensitive issues with friends or family could be impacted by your portrayal. She points out, however, that being ethical doesn’t mean sacrificing your interpretation of your own story:
[b]eing ethical does not mean that you agree with what other members of the family think, or that you have to be close or connected. Being ethical means that you protect yourself and your work, and have proper boundaries when sharing your opinion, which is what a memoir is, with the larger world.
Taking an ethical approach to writing personal nonfiction is sound advice. But does adhering to this approach mean I feel comfortable writing about anything I want as long as I take precautions? After all, events in my life are mine to excavate, aren’t they?
It’s true that when I write personal essays, I’m writing about my own recollections of my own experiences. But, much like dragons, memory is a ferocious, fallible beast. My memory of a factual event is likely to differ from that of others involved since it is colored by my own emotions, opinions, and biases. My recounting of that event, therefore, is only my side of the story.
So when I’m writing from life, I can’t ever claim to recount facts with 100 percent accuracy. The best I can do is convey the essence of that experience in a way that’s fair to all participants and yet accurately portrays its emotional resonance in my life. If I write with enough empathy and honesty, I’ll be able to round out my experiences and depict everyone involved as three-dimensional individuals defined by both their strengths and flaws.
Still, there are topics I don’t write about. I keep in mind Marion Winik’s admonishment that the act of writing can’t help but impact our existing relationships. There are some stories that also belong to others in my family, or that, in their telling, would affect other people’s perceptions of the participants. Even if a story technically is mine to tell, it may not be time to tell it yet. So, though I strive for honesty and empathy in whatever I write, when choosing what to write about, I err on the side of fairness and let certain topics lie untouched, at least for now.[bctt tweet=”Strive for honesty. Err on the side of fairness. #memoir #writing”]
Recently, during the writing of this post, the subject of my blog came up in front of my father. We were on vacation, drinking cocktails and swapping old family stories with my sister and my husband. I admitted to mining our family stories for my writing but said that I’m careful about the subjects I tackle and the way I portray people. Even so, I said, I know I still risk hurting those I love, which is why I waited to write nonfiction about my mother until she died.
My father smiled and said, “But you’re still writing about me.”
I don’t write about you, I was tempted to say. I don’t slay our dragons. When you come up in my writing, I tread lightly, share little, avoid hot button issues.
“Not really,” I said.
He raised his glass. “Wait until I’m dead,” he said. “Then write about me.”
I raised my glass and toasted him in response. Maybe I said, Until death. More likely, I said, Here’s to a very long wait.
I’m not sure.
Memory. It’s a faulty beast.
Place here an image gallery shortcode (Add Media → Create Gallery) or video-page URL starting with http://
AHHHH, such a good post! Thank you, Colette. You’ve spurred a brainstorm of reactions in me. I haven’t mastered proper blog etiquette, so please don’t hesitate to delete this comment if it constitutes a highjacking of sorts.
(1) Your description of the inspiration for the characters in “Lamb” (great story, btw) reminds me that good storytelling involves having a firm psychological understanding the main players; even if, or perhaps, especially when, they are composites of many real people.
(2) That is so lovely that your dad is a subscriber here! Mr. Sartor, I have no words for how much your daughter’s expertise as a writer and encouragement as a teacher means to me. She taught me how to read short stories, which felt a lot like learning to see.
(3) There. #2 is an example of a non-fiction personal essay I could write without any compromise: How I Learned to Read Short Stories and the Brilliant Teacher Who Taught Me (but it needs a better title).
(4) There’s a special place in heaven for the families of bloggers. If my dad has read this post of mine, he and I both have blocked it out: http://www.writingruth.com/2012/06/16/why-im-banning-fathers-day-greeting-cards/